Monday, November 15, 2021

Thank You for Everything, Coach B.

There are many reasons why a person decides to walk into a boxing gym. There are those that believe they are the next great champ. Others want to stop being bullied. Some are just looking for a place to be safe. But the one thing in common with everyone who trains at a boxing gym is that they are searching for a stronger version of themselves, and your coach is the one who helps you find it.

I started boxing when I was 20-years-old, which in boxing years is considerably late. At the time, I didn't know what I wanted in life and wouldn't have known how to get it if I did. I was lost and somewhat scared of the world, and this combination caused an overwhelming anxiety in my everyday life. One of the first times I remember that feeling calming away was when I watched boxing on television so I figured that there might be something there.

I started by calling up a few of the local gyms. Most of them would tell me about the location, the hours and the dues. All pretty straight forward and business-like. Then I called up Coach Bumblebee. The first thing he asked me was my last name.

"Wong? Oh, you Chinese?" he asked.

"Yeah..." I hesitated. Normally I'd say Taiwanese but I was nervous.

"Oh I got a bunch of kids that are Chinese!" Coach yelped. "And boy can they fight!"

"Really? You got Chinese fighters?"

"Yeah son. Boxing is for everyone. I got all kinds of people here."

I showed up at the Union Gospel Mission the very next day. Initially, I was bit confused. There were no signs indicating that any sort of boxing happened there, and not being from the neighborhood, I had to ask someone about it. I was then led to a black door with a square wood sign with "Bumblebee Boxing Club" engraved in yellow letters and words below reading: "This is a safe zone. All are welcome here."

To my novice eyes, the place didn't look like much when I stepped in. It was maybe 500-square feet of space and 95% of everything was held together by duct-tape. In the corner was a makeshift ring with garden hoses for ropes and a couple of creaky wood cabinets that held all the gear. But whatever the gym lacked in equipment was made up by Coach's presence. The moment I walked in he jumped up and said, "You the Chinese kid I talked to on the phone yesterday, ain't ya?"

Coach gave me a quick tour of the place, introduced me to a few of the fighters, and then broke down how training worked. He went through the workout list which consisted of push-ups, sit-ups, crunches, neckrolls, jumping jacks, lunges, a 5-mile run, ring circles, shadowboxing, heavy bag, double-end bag, speed bag, bob-and-weave rope, maize bag,  jump rope, and finished off with jumping buckets. Coach told me I could do the run before I came to the gym if I wanted to, but as long as I was training there, roadwork had to be done five, if not six, days a week. Then he showed me the push-up poster.

Forgetting your hand-wraps would cost you 200. Sitting down 150. Answering in a non "yes" or "no" answer was another 200 and half of that for not having your shirt tucked in. But the one that probably cost you the most - so much that it wasn't even written on the list but sure as hell existed - is if your mother came in and told Coach that you talked back to her. That was something you most definitely wanted to avoid.

I partook in my share of pushups.  At first, they were real infractions. I'd forget to ask permission before I went to the bathroom or forgot to call Coach when I missed a day at the gym, but after a while it felt a bit arbitrary. I remember during one sparring session Coach was threatening pushups if I dropped my hands so I intentionally pasted my hands against my chin for the rest of the round. I didn't even throw a punch so I knew there was no way in hell I dropped by hands, but Coach made me do the pushups anyways. I thought about speaking back, but thought better of it. I was a bit sour for the first twenty or so, but after that, I realized they were just pushups and got over it. That's when I learned that you listen to Coach, even if you think he's wrong, because in the big picture, Coach wasn't wrong. Everything that he did for us was in our benefit, regardless if we couldn't see it at the time. Like Coach might yell at you but he would never put you down. He was all about building up his fighters and he would never let you give up on yourself. "Champions in Life" was the motto.

In total, I trained there consistently for a little over two years, then I drifted in and out for another year or so after traveling abroad. I can't say that I was ever meant to be a serious contender, but the time I spent in the gym is probably the single best investment that I've ever made in my life. It's hard to fully describe the accumulated experience of training with Bumblebee, or as my teammate Robel simply puts it, "You had to be there". But it was one of the first things I did where I noticed tangible change in my character. There I learned how to wake up early, run when I didn't feel like it, and eat bananas and ice cubes for dinner to make weight. I learned about discipline and the beauty of sacrifice. Essentially, boxing introduced me to the concept of self-mastery - perhaps the single most important ideal one can strive for - and Coach was the one that showed me the path.

In 2008, I won a university scholarship to travel the world, and in my proposal I said that I would box in all the places I visited, which I did. I sparred with skills levels ranging from the complete novice to Olympic-level candidates, and for 3 months, I was the principle sparring partner to the #1 professional boxer in Peru where I held my own. The only reason I was able to pull any of that off was because of Coach B. I remember when I would train in different gyms, people would always ask me why I didn't sit down in between rounds. "Because then I'll have do pushups," I'd say to them.

That experience eventually led me to Rio de Janeiro where I volunteered with a non-profit boxing gym that used the sweet science to deter youth from joining drug factions in the favelas, and now, Brazil has more or less set the projection of my foreseeable future. Boxing was what lead me there.

Coach B passed away a few weeks ago and I'm still struggling to accept that he's no longer around. To be honest, I find it a bit strange to be feeling this way because I hadn't been keeping up with Coach in his final years, but I guess it was just comforting to know that there was always someone out there who had your back, because if Coach considered you one of his fighters, he had your back regardless. I look back on what Coach was trying to teach us and constantly question what he would think if he saw me in my lesser moments. Every time I speak back to my mom, for instance, I feel like I am letting Coach down. I guess that is one way that his words will live on with me forever.

These past two years have been difficult. I lost two good friends in 2019, my father a year later and now Coach B. I’m getting to that age where you start losing the people around you and the fear of being alone starts to creep in. I can’t even imagine what it is like for those who experience this kind of loss much earlier in life. But those were the exact sort of kids that showed up at Coach’s door because he provided a sense of presence. I remember how he used to buy a cake every month for the boxers that had their birthday because some of them never got one at home. One time, I met with a local photographer who had a project visiting all the boxing gyms in the area and he broke down what he found at each one.

"Gym are about different things. Most of the gyms are about running a business. Tacoma Boxing Club is about winning championships. Bumblebee is about serving the community."

You goddamn right he is.

Ever since my father passed away, I've been pressing up against a lot of fear. I fear making the wrong decisions in moving my life forward. I fear failing my father's legacy and squandering the opportunities he left through the sacrifices in his life. I fear not fulfilling my duty to his memory.

I try to imagine bringing this up to Coach. He might not understand the specifics, but he would most definitely understand the fear. Coach understood that everyone had the ability to overcome fear if they just dug deep enough within themselves, because if there's anything Coach believed in, it was in his fighters. He believed that if you were a Bumblebee, you could do anything, so he would tell me that no matter what it was, I could do it. That's what I think Coach would say to me now.

Then he would probably go make me do push-ups because I was doubting myself. 

Monday, February 15, 2021

The 49th Day.

In the Buddhist tradition, it is believed that those who have passed on continue to reside in this realm for 49 days, and those who remain can carry out good deeds on their behalf so that they may take them forth into the afterlife. Today marks the 49th day since my father passed away, so this is my final deed for him before he leaves this realm.

For those of you who know me, this has been an ongoing saga in the past 5 years of my life, which at the time, felt like it would never end. But time works in a funny way. Not knowing when something will end can make 5 years feel like forever when you’re in it, but when I look back on it now, all of it went by so fast. When I look back on it now, I wish I had more of it. If I was to be asked how much, I don’t think there is an amount that would be enough. It’s strange, but there were so many times where I absolutely could not stand my father when he was around, and now, seeing him again is one of the only things I wish I could have again. 

It is a cliché to say that we take the time we have with others for granted, but that is exactly what happened with me and my father. Each step in which my father's cancer progressed, he always found a way to keep going. I just thought he would keep beating it. I remember one time a friend tepidly asked how my father was doing, as if afraid he had missed the announcement that my father passed away since I broke the news of his sickness so long ago. I picked up on the discomfort and said, "Yeah, he's still here. I dunno, motherfucker doesn't want to die yet.” We both shared a chuckle from that.

And if there was anything I could say about my dad now, it is that he was indeed, a tough motherfucker. 

My father tested positive for COVID early in December, but it technically was not what got him in the end. He drew a negative result 5-days before he passed, and a good doctor friend of mine relayed to him how COVID was taking out people much younger and in much better health than he was, which again confirmed that he was, “a tough motherfucker.” That was one of the last times I heard my father laugh so boisterously. 

In total, my father fought cancer for 11 years, and in doing so, he defied a lot of odds. His secondary oncologist would constantly refer to him as a "miracle man", which was music to the ears of his primary oncologist, who was the one primarily responsible for giving him 2 more years of decent life. My father's tumor first emerged when he was doing a routine checkup in Taiwan, where initially he came out with a clean bill of health until a friend recommended him to do a PET scan since it was significantly cheaper in Taiwan than it was in the US. My father is the type to always want the best of the best, so even though there were no apparent reasons for him to do so, he went for the PET scan anyways. The results revealed a tumor in the upper lobe of his right lung.

A surgical removal was performed immediately and my father was on observation for the next 5 years. Doctors would perform a scan every three months, then after a number of cleared scans, they would push it out to six, and after a series of six, they would declare a complete remission and let him go on with his life. Sure enough, on the last scan before the end of his fifth year, the tumor re-emerged. A subsequent surgery gave him another year of tumor-free scans, but when it reappeared once more, there were no more surgeries to be had. He then went on a series of clinical trials, and when he outgrew the clinical trials, he shifted to immunotherapy combined with a regime of low-dose chemotherapy treatments. I moved back home around 2015 when all surgical options were exhausted, haphazardly attempting to help out. 

A lot of people look at my choice to move back home as if I did something noble, but in truth, it really wasn’t. I mean, I guess I could have done other things with the time I spent caring for my father, but it wasn't as if I had any clue what I was doing before that. It wasn't like I had an illustrious position at some major company or was a rising star in some field that I had to give up. I was an adult child with no real direction or marketable skills to offer the world. Looking back on it now, caring for my father was just as much for me as it was for him.

Up until that point, my father and I had a contemptuous relationship. I recently learned from my mother that when I first moved back, my father didn't really like me all that much. To be honest, I can't really blame him. I had just returned from Brazil, absolutely useless from a devastating heartbreak. I’ll spare the details, but the basic gist is that I invested too much of my identity into a relationship, which I later learned to be a recurring habit that kept me from finding direction in my life. Oblivious to the obsessive focus on my needs, I skirted all responsibility outside of myself. From my father's perspective, he had worked his entire life to overcome a childhood of poverty, and there I was, not caring or understanding any of it.
My father grew up in Taiwan, during the aftermath of the 1949 Chinese revolution and the shift of governmental rule from Japan to China. The economic consequences of that shift coupled with a few of my grandfather’s vices spun the family from relative wealth to dire poverty within a few years, all which occurred when my father was still in grade school. He would recall stories of public auctions of the family possession and having flashlights shined in his face at 3 in the morning because the authorities were looking for his father for writing bad checks. Those childhood scars carried on well into his adulthood and I am not sure that he ever truly healed from them. Throughout my father’s life, he would wake up from cold-sweat nightmares of reliving his childhood. That and going back to being a government employee.
This fear drove my father to spend the majority of his life focused on accumulating wealth. While in some ways this focus protected him, it also strained the relationship with his wife and children. To be fair to him though, my father has always described himself as a “half-assed family man”, and it isn’t as if securing material resources doesn’t fall under the job description of a father. Never once did I go hungry. Never once did I feel the threat of living on the street. He built an environment of safety for his children, and a place for them to cultivate their lives. That’s a lot more than what some fathers would do for their children, and my ability to view the world as I do now is mainly due to the fact that I did not have to endure the same hardships that he did. 

My father spent his entire life wrestling with the demons of poverty and greed, and though he never really overcame them during the time he was alive, he did make sure they died with him. He did not allow this disease to infect his family, so in my eyes, he won. And I don't think I'll ever be able to repay that deed. 

I wish I would have been able to see this earlier because my father and I used to get into heated arguments over his obsession with material wealth. My stance was that he prioritized it over the more important aspects of life. His stance was that I didn’t understand enough about how the world worked. We were both partly right, but the problem was that in our partial “rightness", we couldn’t hear anything that the other person was saying. Over time, the arguments between us did begin to dwindle, but it was more so because the chemical treatments made him just too physically tired to argue anymore rather than our relationship getting better. There was no feeling of victory in winning those arguments after that. Instead I was left with a kind of deafening sadness. 

In the speech I gave at my father’s memorial, I said that he was “kind of an asshole”, which is true. I also said that he wanted me to say that, which is another truth. One time he told me that he wanted to be remembered at his funeral as “Steve Wong - The Asshole.” He emphasized this by spreading an imaginary banner with his hands of his self-proclaimed title, and giving a most satisfactory grin. He later specified the reference of a particular kind of asshole.

“Nick, there are two kinds of assholes in this world,” he began. "There are assholes, then there are goddamn assholes. I’m a goddamn asshole,” he proclaimed, pointing at himself with two thumbs-up gestures. 

And generally, that was true. He’d curse someone out over the most minuscule thing, but if they were in any sort of real trouble, he'd bail them out immediately, no questions asked. He had a bad mouth, but a good heart, and his unabated instincts would reveal that true nature.

One example of that was when we were watching “The Green Book”, and in that scene where Dr. Shirley is denied use of the house bathroom and instead instructed to relieve himself in the outhouse barely holding itself together, my father innocently asked, “Why won’t they let him go into the bathroom?”

I sort of gave him this look that asked whether or not he’d been paying attention to the last hour of the movie. 

“’s because he’s black,” I said.

If I ever had any doubt on what indignation looked like on a person’s face, I no longer had any after that moment. 

“That’s fucking BULLSHIT!” my father belched. 

I swear he watched the rest of that movie hoping that rich white guy’s house would catch on fire at some point of the plot. 

It was moments like this that simmered all the other noise down to the base character of my father. Knowing this allowed me to take his outbursts less personally, even finding humor in most of them. And I’d like to think that over time, the fewer arguments between us weren't only from his lack of energy, but that we were getting along better too. 

This also allowed me to make a sincere effort in understanding and undertaking all that he had built throughout his life, something that I had avoided for many years as a young adult, and in doing what I thought to be what I wanted to do least, I became a person who could offer something tangible to the world. I now look at those last years with my father as some of the most cherished times of my life. He became one of my best friends. 

We both changed the more time we spent with one another. As I became more responsible, my father became kinder, and I think it is because he worried less of what would happen to the family after he left. But what transformed my father the most when he became a grandfather. Seeing him with my niece and nephew was probably the only time where I saw it impossible for him to be angry. Something inside of him that just wouldn’t allow it. Something in him just softened. It was maybe the only time he felt safe enough to be such a way, but I think that’s how he always wanted to be. 

My father wasn't Buddhist, but he did understand Buddhism in this very innate and profound way. One of the only counsels he ever gave me about love was when I first came back from Brazil. He told me that I could not find love by chasing it. He told me that I had to be still, and let it come to me. He then made this gesture with his hand, very much like a mudra, in the center of of his chest, and something about that moment will never leave my memory. 

The final gift I bought for my father was a calligraphy painting from a Zen temple I had lived in five weeks prior to his death. I hung it up next to a cross that I brought him from Brazil. He then pointed at the wall, moving his finger back and forth between the cross and the calligraphy. 

"Those two are the same,” he said to me. "They both teach you to be a better person." 

In Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight”, Heath Ledger’s character says that, "In their last moments, people show you who they really are.” I never thought I would quote the Joker in a piece about my father’s death, but I haven’t found a truer statement to describe his last moments. On December 29th, 2020, I woke up at 5:45 in the morning at my father’s side. He was heaving for air. He could no longer speak at this point, but he could understand what I was saying. I asked if he was in pain and he shook his head "no". I asked if he wanted morphine, something that he had clamored for all day the day before, and he shook his head "no" once more. He wanted to face death clearly, as a man, because that is who he really was. 

After reciting prayers for a good death, I asked him if he felt forgiven for his sins, as he had also confessed his earthly transgressions to me the night before. He shook his head "yes". And with that, I told him to go in peace, because he was forgiven.
Those were the last words I said to my father, and he passed away a couple minutes later, at 6:15 that morning.

In the final week of my father’s life, there was a day where he said to me, “You’re being nice to me now.” Those words sliced me to the core, but not because he intended them to hurt me. It was because he was simply making a statement of how he felt. I suddenly I asked myself how necessary it was to be upset with him in all those many instances in which I was. Most of them were not, and if I was a bit wiser, I would say none of them were. It hurt to know that I had given him so much grief in his life. It hurt to know that it was too late to correct those mistakes. It hurt to know that there was so little time left to show my remorse. But sometimes that is just how life teaches you. I look back on all the times where I spoke back, raised my voice, and cursed under my breath (and sometimes over), with a very deep shame. And it is a shame that is difficult, if not impossible, to wash off once someone is gone. So if there is anything I would want to pass on, it is to make use of the time with those we have around us. Striving towards a reconciliation will give us clues to the meaning of life.
There is something about losing someone close to you that transforms the relationship with your surroundings. It’s sounds silly, but it is only now that I look at all those around me, all those whom I love so dearly, and realize that they too will one day die. This makes me cherish every breath that I have on this earth. Life is too precious to be wasted on hatred. And I also mean hatred for the things in which we believe to be wrong. It is just not worth viewing the world in that way. 

This is the final gift in which my father left me - the courage to be kind to the world. And as my final deed to him on this day, I give my gratitude and a promise:

Thank you for showing me how to live my life, and I promise to carry forth your legacy in the way in which you intended.

I love you, Dad. Have a safe journey to the other side.  

Thursday, June 14, 2018

A farewell.

I came to back to Brazil without telling anyone. Part of it was rational: I didn't want to lug presents back and forth for people in both countries. Part of me was ashamed: I had just gotten back from Brazil and I was going again? Why am I so privileged to do such a thing? But I realize now that most of it was because this was my farewell to the country and I wanted to keep it personal. Well, perhaps not a "farewell", but at least a farewell to the life that I once had here, the life I had been holding onto in all of my deepest dreams. 

Not many people know this, but when I first left Brazil, I had left thinking I was coming back in two months, so I just left a bunch of stuff here. Two months turned into more than 3 years. But part of me also knew at that time that I was going to be gone for much longer than what I had thought, and me leaving my things here was going to force me to come back, no matter how scared or comfortable I had become in my life. When I came back, I didn't know what to expect. The logical part of me knew that the life I had no longer existed. The emotional part of me hoped that it would be. The truth is that both were there in some ways, and not in others.

When I first set into my apartment, the experience was surreal. It was like a time capsul. Nothing had really changed, except for the copious amounts of dust. Much of the city too had remained the same; in fact the same people worked at the places I used to frequent. When the same doorman greeted me at the front door, it was like seeing an old family member, happily wondering where I had been; it was the best welcome home one could hope for. But deeper down inside, many things changed.

Brazil is in a state of crisis; Rio de Janeiro in a crisis of its own. The World Cup and Olympic Games absolutely ruined the city, not for the events itself, but for the fact that the millions of dollars that was put into the city fell into the pockets of corrupt politicians. To put that into perspective, the past four governors of the city are currently in prison. What resulted was an alarming finincial crisis. I saw many more people sleeping on the streets, many more street vendors selling used nick-nacks on the corner. I would say that 95% of the people I know are doing worse than when I first met them. The only person that things said hadn't changed was my friend from Maré who said, "Well things have always been fucked up here so I don't really feel a difference." The experience absolutely tore my heart to pieces.

But their attitude about it. Their goddamn attitude. We could all learn from their attitude. If there's anything that I find so inspiring about the people, it is their faith. The faith in their country. The faith in themselves. The faith that things will be okay. This belief makes it so that there is no excuse to stop trying. That too nearly brought me to tears.

It is hard for me to let go of this piece of my life. Giving up my apartment was one of the hardest. One might think that it's just a place, but to me it's much more than that. It was here that I discovered everything about myself. All the answers I was seeking. All the questions that I did not know even existed. This city taught me everything about being a decent person. It taught me how to love. It taught me how to forgive. For this reason, it is hard to say goodbye. 

But lettting go of it was also beautiful. I gave away most of my belongings, left bags full of clothing, books and other random items on the street corner for people to sell. In this way, the closing of this chapter of my life gave new beginnings to another. It was a complete cycle of death and rebirth.

Inside of my heart, I know that this is not the last time I set foot on this land. I know that God willing, I will move to this city one day, but will likely be different from when I was here before. Because despite all the changes I saw in the city, perhaps the most profound change I realized was in myself: I was no longer the person I was when I first lived here. 

But it is still hard to let go. I once wrote that saying goodbye to some of these people might be the last time I'd ever see them. I wasn't trying to be dramatic, though it might have come off as such, but there were plenty of friends I didn't get to visit during this trip. Some had moved cities, moved countries, or passed over to the other side. With all the uncertanities in life, one never really knows what will happen. There are about four millions ways to fall off your path and only one way to stay on it. Let's just say I have a lot of work to do when I go back to Seattle. 

But at least for now, all I have is an incredible sense of gratitude. So thank you Brazil. Thank you Rio de Janeiro. Thank you for saving my life. I will be back one day to return the favor. 

Friday, February 2, 2018

A present.

One time I went to my Jiu-Jitsu dojo wearing wooden Japanese sandals and this guy asked me about them, said he wanted a pair. The next time I went to São Paulo, I bought them for him and brought them back. He looked at me suspiciously and said "How much?", running his thumb against two fingers. I thought about it for a minute and ended up saying, " can just have them. Present from me." 

"Really?!?!" he said, eyes lit up like holiday bulbs. 

"Yeah," I said shrugging, but inside feeling ecstatic to have made the right choice to gift them. 

"Woooooo!!!" he squealed. He then pursed his lips and began rubbing the sandals against the two sides of his face. 

The next week he came to the dojo with his wife, introducing as "the guy that gave me the sandals." His wife bowed slightly and thanked me, saying that he gets so happy when he sees them and periodically rubs them against his face.  

Yeah. That experience was definitely worth eight dollars. 

Sunday, June 11, 2017

The first conversation since.

Flora and I broke up about two and a half years ago. From that point moving forward, the frequency of our conversations began to piddle out like a dripping water faucet that was slowly being repaired. After we broke up we spoke maybe for a few minutes every week. Then every month. Then it was three. Then half a year. Two weeks ago, we had our first real conversation in maybe nine months. 

Usually when I would message Flora it would be a simple “Hi.” “How are you doing?” “I’m glad you’re doing well.” And I wouldn’t hear from her again. Sometimes the words were fewer. Sometimes it was a simple “hand-wave” emoji. Most times the messages went unanswered. This time I reached out to her because I was doing something that required me to pray for people who have passed away four years ago or more. When I asked if there was anyone that fit the criteria in her life, she offered the name of her grandmother. I thanked her and pretty much thought that would be the end of it, but this time she asked how I was doing, and when I replied and asked the same of her, she actually answered. 

I stopped looking at Flora's Facebook long ago, partly because I realized that it wasn’t a good thing for me to do, but also because that girl doesn’t put shit on her Facebook. It’s one of the things I really like about her. One thing I did find however, was an album that her band finished on YouTube. It meant a lot to me when I found it, or more like, it meant a lot to me that it probably meant a lot to them. Flora and I were still together when the band first formed; I still remember the auditions her and her twin sister put on at the studio (they were the band's founders and the ones that got the final say). To see them come out with a 6-track EP showed me how far they’ve come, and how much time has passed since then. It made me smile. I never told her about my discovery.

Instead we talked about novelties. She finally got a chance to travel, spent some time in Europe, mainly France and the UK, and she was actually leaving for France again in two days. Somewhat to my surprise, this made me incredibly happy. She’s an adventurer, like me, and she deserved seeing the world more than just about anyone I know. I asked her how well her French was coming along. She replied with three messages that I couldn’t understand. She then wrote that she really wanted to become fluent in French, said the language spoke to her. I told her it did to me as well, though I wanted to learn it for the purposes of traveling to West Africa one day.

“For sure,” she said. “I want to go there too. The luxury of Europe isn’t that fitting for me.” 

“I have a good friend in Togo,” I told her.

“Let’s meet up in West Africa!”


The old me would have held onto that statement like it actually meant something. I would have read it as a hope, a chance that she still thought about me and wanted something more than an acquaintanceship over the Internet. But this time I felt pretty neutral in her words, like it was fine if it never came true, because most likely it wouldn’t. When I took a few minutes to respond, she said that I didn’t have to talk to her if I had other things to do. I told her I wanted to have a conversation with her, that it was rare to be able to talk with "Flora Star".

“Flora Star” was this inside joke we had when we were dating. Flora used to have this psychotic stalker that one time gifted her fifty 8x11 color prints of a picture of her that he found on Facebook. When she fanned out all the copies, I asked if I could keep one. She shrugged and said, “Sure I guess.” I took out a sharpie and asked her to sign it. She smirked. On it she wrote:

“To my new fan, Nicholas - Flora Star ;-)” 

This is why I loved this girl.

Calling her “Flora Star” made her laugh. She then wrote, “Well maybe it doesn’t have to be that rare!” Another instance where the old me would have held on, but I didn’t this time. We then proceeded to get on about our lives, our plans, our hopes, our dreams. I told her I’ve been staying around helping my family and writing a lot. She told me the band broke up and that she’s starting a solo project. She then apologetically told me that she took three shirts from my apartment after we broke up and used them often. I’ll have to admit, that tidbit made my heart skip a bit faster. Then to my surprise, she went straight into a topic that I thought I would’ve brought up.

“Are you dating anyone?” she asked.

“Hmm…you’re very direct,” I answered. 

“I don’t know any other way to be,” she said in return. “I’m a Sagittarius…the arrow always goes direct.”

“Yeah, I know,” I said smiling behind the screen. “No, I’m not dating anyone. Are you?” A good two minutes passed before she responded. 

“I’m looking to find solitude,” she wrote. “Solitude and fullfilment. Does that make sense?” 

“Yes,” I said. “It is the same thing that I’m doing.”

I don’t know what she was thinking from her side of the screen. I didn’t know why she asked. I didn’t know why she cared. At one point of the conversation, I told her that I was her friend, and that I’d always be her friend. She told me the same. But when I think about it now, Flora is not really my friend, at least not in my current definition of the word. She hasn’t really been around in the capacity of which I hold my friends accountable for. I mean, sure, people have their lives to live and I have plenty of very dear and close friends that I go years not speaking with, but I almost died when we broke up (literally from a staph infection), and she wouldn’t really give me the time of day when that was happening. Yes, I was being the desperate dependent annoying ex-boyfriend who couldn’t handle reality, but I was also in a lot of pain. She’s forgotten my birthday every year since just about the day we met, and has never asked on whim how me and my family are doing. In fact when I think about it more, I’ve initiated every conversation we’ve ever had since our breakup. Again, I’m not trying to make her out to be a bad person, because she’s actually not. She’s actually one of the kindest, most genuine people I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. But she also has shitty communication skills. It’s kind of just the way she is, or more accurately, the time of life that she's currently in. It can also just be the way some PEOPLE are, and that's simply how it is. It should be enough to know that she cares about me in her heart, that she is always wanting the best for my life, even if she never says it to me in words. Sometimes it’s just hard to believe in that on faith alone.

For the first time in all of our interactions since our breakup, I was the one that ended the conversation first. It’s not that I wasn’t enjoying our dialogue, it’s more that I felt there was nothing left to say. Plus she was going in and out of the conversation - low battery life and moreso general distractions. Before I’d get annoyed with something like that, take it as some form of disrespect, but this time I just had love for it as a friend. It’s strange, but there were probably more things said in this conversation where I could have fallen back in love with her than anytime in the past, but I let them go this time, that in the end, they probably didn’t mean anything. It was here that I realized that this was the closure I was seeking with Flora. I had done it without even knowing it. Part of me felt healed, but another very real part of me was hurting.

What I've come to realize is that I gave it everything I had with Flora. I went in with reckless abandon because I still believe(d) in this ideal of Love that we have in the world. I pulled out all the stops. All the fears, all the doubts, I went past all of them, for her. I gave her my bestAnd it wasn't enough. 

That has been the hardest thing I've had to understand. Yes, I am now a different person, a much more mature and capable person, and most of this was just timing. But to miss the mark, on something like this, is not an easy thing to accept. At the same time, I also know it is something that I need(ed) to do. 

Sunday, January 8, 2017

A day at the cafe.

I was having coffee today with a good friend and in the middle of our conversation, a guy stumbles over to us and begins talking.

"Hey guys, I'm a Jarhead..." he starts. The rest of it sort of goes into this indecipherable ramble. 

I get it immediately. He's a panhandler and my initial reaction is to put him aside, tell him that my friend and I were in the middle of a very important conversation (we were), and that it needed to be respected. Over the years, I've found the ability to do this, and to a bit of my own chagrin, have taken way too much liberty with it. But something in his eyes stopped me. Something about him made me look for a different way. His words are still making no sense at this point and could have gone on had I let it, so instead I interject:

"What can I do for you brother? What is it that you need?" 

He sort of stops and has a tinge of surprise on his face.

"Some change," he said. "I could really use it."

I nod and dig into my pocket, pull out a dollar. My friend does the same. I place it into his palm and attempt to say something meaningful, but it's really just a bunch of crap. It made so little sense that I can't even recall (or don't want to recall) the words to write them out now. A barista from the counter comes over and begins to usher the guy out.

"C'mon man, you can't come in here. No panhandling." He starts to drag the man away. I catch the last part of what the guy says in protest.

"...I just want to be around them," he pleads. 

Again, had it been a few years ago, that would have been the end of it. Problem solved. I go on about my day, go on about my conversation. Distraction handled. But something about it felt off. I wanted my life to be different. At first, I thought to say to the barista that he wasn't bothering us, but I understood his position too. It's his job to maintain the café, let the patrons enjoy their coffee. I try to think of the next best thing. 

"I'll walk him out," I say. The barista nods and let's go of his arm.

I take the guy out and lean over to him.

"What is it you wanted to say to me?" I asked.

"Okay. I'm not gonna lie to you," he starts. "Because there's no point in lying. Telling one lie just means you gotta cover it up with another." 

I give a small smirk and nod. 

"I just need a beer right now," he says.  

I look back into his eyes again and I'm immediately reminded of this word I learned in Brazil. If you ever visit an indigenous tribe in the Amazon (or at least the same ones I have), you will often hear people call you this word: "Txai". It means something more than "Brother" or "Sister". It means "I am another you. You are another me." This is something they used in the movie Avatar and the meaning is profound. Think about it. If we went about life looking at everyone as another version of us, we wouldn't think of the homeless as degenerate low-lifes who can't get their shit together. We wouldn't think that they're lazy, or 'just not trying hard enough', or that overcoming alcoholism is as easy as simply stopping. We might, instead, think that if just one part of our life was different, we'd be right where they are. Maybe if we were born in a different crib or had something done to us when we were children. Maybe something completely out of our control happened at a time when we were not protected. Sure, everyone does need to be accountable for their choices despite the circumstance, but it might also make the world look a bit different. Instead of castigating or criticizing, maybe we'd try understanding and giving compassion, because giving compassion to others is giving compassion to ourselves. Who knows.  

We both sort of chuckle. I tell him I appreciate his honesty. I reach into my pocket and pull out a $5 bill. I think about all the things I've heard about giving money to panhandlers, drunks especially. It really only enables the problem and can very much make it worse. But there are other things to consider too. The temperature has been in the 30s these past few days in Seattle. It was pouring rain at the time. I figure maybe the liquor would keep him warm. I dunno. Maybe it was the wrong thing to do, but it was what I did. 

He smiles and sort of pats me on the back. I try to say something else to him. I want to say something along the lines of, "You can always use it for something better," or "There's always another choice," but I can't get the words out. It's probably because I have no idea what it feels like to be this dude and it would be kind of asshole-pretentious of me to tell him what to do with his life. Instead all I can muster is pounding myself in the chest. He sort of looks at me quizzically. I pound once more.

"Oh, uh, hit myself?" he asks. "Right here?" He hits himself way harder than what made me comfortable. 

I sort of cringe and shake my head, think about how much of an idiot I must have looked like. I don't even really know what I'm trying to say, so I just pound again.

"Oh! The heart!" he laughs. "You're alright man." 

I stand there for a moment as he walks away. A dumb smile comes across my face. The funny thing is that people might read this story and think I did something for the guy, but in reality, he did way more for me. 

Sunday, January 1, 2017

A new beginning.

I am no longer in love with Flora. You don't know how difficult it was for me to come to that conclusion, let alone post it on the Internet. For those of you familiar with my story, you might know the gravity this statement carries. And if you really know me, you're also probably someone who told me that I was absolutely fucking crazy to stay in it with her for this long, especially since we broke up over two years ago.

See, I am a romantic at heart, and I don't mean that in a positive way. I'm more like a romance fanatic. I love romantic movies. One of my favorite film series is "The Before Trilogy", I hate "Love Actually", but find "Crazy, Stupid, Love" to be one of the most underrated romance films (if not films in general) ever. But at some point I realized that these movies, the ideology they espouse, can be dangerous. They make us think that love is supposed to look a certain way, or that if your encounter with someone vaguely resembles something you've seen in one of these films, it is somehow ordained in the heavens that the two of you are meant to be with one another. It creates this lift in your heart, springs a hope that life can bring something worth living for, but it also begins this unending journey to an unattainable goal. There is nothing noble about unrequited Love. Nothing romantic. Nothing brave. In fact, it is quite stupid.

Flora and I broke up in November of 2014. From that date until now, I have more or less remained faithful to her. I may have lightly dated, but not where it mattered. I didn't sleep with anyone and I damn sure did not love anyone else. The whole time I thought I was doing something grand, something that would prove my worth for her love, something that would eventually pay back in the form of her coming back to me. Instead, nothing happened. I thought about it for a moment, about whether or not I should continue pining over someone that will likely never come back into my life, and suddenly I looked myself in the mirror and thought of a one-word question I should have thought of a long time ago: "Why?"

Since we've broken up, Flora has never called, texted or emailed. She never asks how my father is doing, she never asks how I am doing, and if I didn't send her a "hello" every so often, she wouldn't even know that I'm alive. I sent her a "hand-wave" for Christmas, and she never responded. She saw it, but never thought to write back. Now I just think, "Why would I give my heart to someone who doesn't want it?"

I want to make clear that I am not trying to frame Flora as a "bad" person. I want to make clear that I understand she has zero obligation in caring about me romantically, or even as a friend for that matter. It is her choice, her life, and to this day I still think of her as one of the best people that I've ever met. The only pain I feel is from the expectations I built up from staying faithful to a faded memory.

There was this one time where I asked someone about Love. I said to him:

"Love, is it a fight?

"No," he said to me. "Love is a flower. Never confuse the two."  

I look at that statement now, and our love was indeed a flower, and for these past two years, it was me trying to take care of it alone. It was me giving it water, but there was no sunshine. Everyday I would wake up and try to breathe a nourishing warmth into its bloom, but of course, it didn't work. It withered and its roots eventually rotted. This entire process has been me excavating the remains. Love cannot survive with only one person caring for it. We cannot do this alone. 

It took me a long time to find the courage to write this out, because at times I felt I might have been throwing away our story with too much nonchalance, too much pain, too much bitterness. But it's not that. I've carried my Love for Flora as a sacred talisman, and I've guarded it with my life. She meant the world to me. She was everything. People don't know this, but Flora actually asked me to marry her three times. The first time I said "No", because I said she should think more about how it would change her life. The second time she asked again - in front of her father and her step-mother - and I said the same thing, detailing a bit more about how her civil status would change and how that would affect her financially, i.e. taxes. The third time was when I was back in the US and she asked me over the phone. This time I didn't say "No" immediately.

"Ok. Why do you want to get married?" I asked.

"Nick. I wouldn't consider marriage for just one reason only. It's for your visa, so you can stay here, so we can be together, and well, because I love you," she told me.

"Are you sure?" I asked. "You understand this could make your life more difficult?"

"I understand and I'm sure."

"Okay then," I said with the biggest grin on my face that she couldn't see.

"Damn. That was the hardest marriage proposal in the history of the world!"

We laughed, but what ended up happening was that the exact things I had warned her about scared her off. In order to get married in Brazil, one needs to have a variety of documents including but not limited to: FBI criminal background check, certificate of civil status, contract from a lawyer, notary official to wed, etc., etc. Because much of this stuff took months to process, and I needed to start gathering documents pretty much when I returned because of the expiration date of my visa. I think that spooked her out of it. It felt like pressure to her, and she called it off. That hurt, in a very profound way. I thought Flora was the Love of my Life and I would have given anything in order to marry her. It would have meant everything to me. My greatest triumph. 

But I also look back on that now, and who I was then was kind of scary. To give so much of yourself to someone who is not willing to give back is dangerous. What occurred to me so strongly, when I asked myself "Why?" in the mirror, were a series of questions: "Where is your self-respect? Your self-worth? Where is your self-love?" I realized that over these past two years, I managed to fill the hole in my heart with Love for myself, and now my heart has been returned to me. I am the owner of my heart. I Am The Owner of My Heart. I AM THE OWNER OF MY HEART.

My friend once told me that every boy has a woman in their life that turns them into a man. For my life, Flora is that person. She taught me how to love myself.  

I used to define the quality of my New Years Eve on whether or not I kissed someone at midnight. That one New Years with Flora has so far been my favorite, but I think this one may have topped it. Because this time I found something that was way more valuable than a random kiss from a stranger, or maybe even from Flora herself. This year, I rediscovered my dignity.